Artificial Leaves Key To Lowering Hydrogen Fuel Production Costs

Cameron Aubernon
by Cameron Aubernon

For all of the incentives thrown in front of the upcoming Toyota Mirai, the automaker believes fueling the FCV will remain an expensive proposition in the near-term. That is, unless new hydrogen production technologies do for fuel cells what petroleum technology did the for the ICE.

CleanTechnica reports a full tank of hydrogen for the Mirai would cost $50, according to Toyota North America senior vice president Bob Caster, who took his information from the U.S. Department of Energy. Caster added that the price could come down to as low as $30 per tank, a goal the DOE aims to deliver as soon as possible with an R&D investment of $20 million.

In the meantime, researchers in Japan, and at MIT and the Australian National University Research School of Biology are developing hydrogen processing techniques involving photosynthesis in so-called artificial leaves. MIT’s approach uses solar energy in a photoelectrochemical process to extract hydrogen, while the Australians swap iron with manganese in a naturally occurring protein named ferritin along with light-sensitive zinc chlorin to do the same. Japan, on the other hand, uses cyanobacteria.

All artificial-leaf projects are currently focused on providing cheap energy in developing countries, but do have the potential to scale to meet the needs of a burgeoning hydrogen industry.

Cameron Aubernon
Cameron Aubernon

Seattle-based writer, blogger, and photographer for many a publication. Born in Louisville. Raised in Kansas. Where I lay my head is home.

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  • Redav Redav on Aug 26, 2014

    I have said many times that I believe the next revolution in technology is in biological machines. We already do this to an extent with specifically bred bacteria, algae, etc. We already use modified viruses in chemical manufacturing. The next step is in more genetic engineering of these machines, as well as extracting the sub-cell functions from the living organism and operating them on their own. I fully expect to see both electricity & chemical production plants based on chlorophyll/photosynthesis such as proposed with these artificial leaves. The big question, however, is when will such a revolution take place? If history is a guide, it will be sooner than expected.

    • Xeranar Xeranar on Aug 26, 2014

      Bio-tech? I would say 10-15 years max. We're already in the mini-scale process with a few dozen different projects in this line of work. Once they're to the mini-scale industrial setting it's maybe 10 years before we'll see full-scale industrial projects get off the ground. The problem right now in the energy sector is that 7 of the largest companies on earth and their thousands of subsidiaries and related industries are holding back the technology by both force and market domination. Automobiles are a small part of the game that is afoot right now, but if hydrogen became economical they would have a limited shelf-life as the value of their resource plummeted.

  • Stuki Stuki on Aug 26, 2014

    I still don't understand how any of this is supposed to work at global scale. And neither does anyone I have spoken to; some of whom who should be as well placed as anyone to know. But unless the apparent conviction with which both Toyota and Honda are getting behind it is just window dressing to please some run amuck bureaucrat in Tokyo for awhile, there's got to be more to it than I currently grasp. The only speculation that makes halfway sense to me, is that battery research, even really far out costs be damned speculative stuff, have been tested more thoroughly by Japanese suppliers and found wanting, than what is currently publicly accepted wisdom. Making Hydrogen refueling seem less comparatively daunting. Which still ends up sounding more like a buy recommendation for Big Oil than for any H2 play....

  • AFX AFX on Aug 26, 2014

    The next big thing they're working on in alternative fueled cars is carbide powered ones. You'll have two fuel tanks onboard, one for the carbide powder, and one for the water. As a side benefit it'll also power the lights, and you can get your car to backfire during 4th of July parades.

  • Wmba Wmba on Aug 26, 2014

    It's completely unclear to me, from this article, what the leaves, ferritin or cyanobacteria are up to. Do they process natural gas? Do they grab hydrogen from air? The article could be nattering on about gold nodules from Uranus. Context. Can the author provide - context. As in, what's going on ...

    • See 1 previous
    • Hybridkiller Hybridkiller on Aug 26, 2014

      "Can the author provide – context. As in, what’s going on …" I believe that's what the embedded links are for...